Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She serves on the USA Climbing medical committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for nutrition coaching, workshops, and writing services.
Joking about fish, comedian Jim Gaffigan deadpans, “Who’s the first person to walk into a harbor and go, ‘Hey, whatever reeks in here, let’s eat that! Fish don’t even like fish, that’s why they’re always frowning, they’re like ‘What’s that smell? Oh, me, I’m a fish.’”
Gaffigan may not be team fish, but as a climber it could be worth adding fish to your diet and forgoing beef, chicken and pork for health, environmental or ethical reasons. A pescatarian allows fish, including shellfish and arthropods such as shrimp, in their diet, along with dairy and eggs. If you are an omnivore who doesn’t want to give up other meats, simply replacing other meat with fish a few times per week can reap health benefits. Conversely, many vegetarians turn pescatarian to get a high-quality protein and fat source. And fish is also often seen as a better choice for the environment than land animals, although this depends on whether the fish is wild caught or farmed, and additional factors such as the fishing and farming methods.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna, and herring, carry anti-inflammatory properties. These healthful fats have been shown to help with brain and immune functions, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, aid in mood regulation, and help with rheumatoid arthritis.
Sara Casey, a climber from Chicago, has found success with being a pescatarian. “I became pescatarian so I could prioritize the benefits of plant-based eating as well as the unique nutritional advantages from fish,” she says.”Especially with plant proteins that often have good fiber content too, it really helps me stay full and energized—so I can climb longer!”
Health benefits of fish include:
- Complete source of protein
- Source of “good” fats (support brain and heart health)
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Source of vitamin D, riboflavin, iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, and iodine
- May help with mood and depression
Beyond general health benefits, climbers can benefit from fish intake or opt for fish-oil supplements. Positive outcomes for athletes as climbers include improved mood and cognition (helpful for a sport that tests your limits to the extreme), aid in muscle recovery, and a weakened inflammatory cell responses to exercise. There is also limited but promising research on fish-oil for aiding recovery of traumatic brain injury and from concussions.
Use caution, however, when selecting your fish or supplement source, as fish can be contaminated with mercury. The Food and Drug Administration advises eating fish that has low chance of being contaminated, such as cod, catfish, salmon, tilapia, and canned light tuna. Only use fish-oil supplements that have been third-party tested.
If you’re considering going pescatarian, make sure it’s right for you. As with any diet change, if it brings more anxiety and restriction around food, it probably isn’t a good switch. Always check with your healthcare provider before making any dietary or supplement changes.
Fish can be a great recovery meal after a hard climbing session, especially when paired with a carbohydrate such as rice, pasta, potatoes, and non-starchy vegetables. Try salmon with a baked potato and side of asparagus, or a tuna salad sandwich on wheat bread with apple slices and a smoothie. Shake up your boring crag snack routine by bringing a pouch of ready-to-eat tuna or salmon and crackers. Just don’t eat it in the car with the windows up as you drive away from the crag. “What’s that smell? Oh, me, I’m a fish.”